Legacies of Enslavement and Race: Creating a Lexicon


Creating a lexicon appears as an action item in Organizational Investment (V.J.28). A region-wide lexicon for interpreting enslavement and talking about race is needed. It can then be used for interpretation and communications. A workgroup should include parks and external stakeholders. A workgroup can assist parks with the implementation of the lexicon via written materials and training of front-line staff.

The information below, assembled by the Legacies of Enslavement and Race Workgroup during the summer of 2020, is background material to help you start thinking about the process to define a more truth-centered, inclusive, and empathetic lexicon for your park and the region.


  • Examine the language used to discuss slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights. 
  • Develop an intentional vocabulary or list of terms that respects the humanity of people then and now, while maintaining historical accuracy.  
  • Identify, evaluate, and remove or reduce words and terminology tied to “The Lost Cause” propaganda which minimizes the role of white supremacy in racism, slavery, and the attempt to destroy the United States. 
  • Identify and eliminate words that erase or diminish the humanity of groups or individuals, especially Africans and their descendants. 
  • Be conscious, intentional, and consistent in the language used in programs, written materials, and daily speech. 
  • Develop best practices for introducing language and phrases for all NCA sites, specifically Civil War battlefields and antebellum historic homes. 

What You’ll Find

Here are some examples of what your lexicon could look like.


  • Words matter. Language can illuminate, communicate, and uplift, but it can also obscure, confuse, and oppress. Language has power. Use your power for good. 
  • “The Lost Cause” ideology infused 19th and 20th century academic and common language about slavery and the Civil War. While some of the language is obvious (War Between the States vs Civil War), some of it is more subtle (master vs enslaver). 
  • Consult with Harpers Ferry Center on their recently updated style guide/lexicon. 
  • Consult with community stakeholders during your process of developing the terminology. 
  • Train staff on new language and why to use it. 
  • Share terms with visitors, introduced at the start of each program/dialogue, to help them understand why we are using those terms. 
  •  Mention the language used during the time-period and what we’re currently using for modern day accuracy and empathy. 
    • Time period and region play a large part in terminology. 
    • Focus on being accurate rather than being neutral. 
    • Read your audience, maybe give a bit more background to help encourage productive conversations. Start at a 101-level instead of a more advanced level based on the group that comes to you. Meet them where they are. 

Language evolves. This will be ongoing work based on how the culture and etymology around these terms change. Appropriateness of terms will also be dynamic through time as our understanding of their impact becomes known. Words need to be consciously selected to accurately depict history, and to stop protecting and admiring abusers. Some word choices may be park-specific, while others will be recommended for all NCA sites. 

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